Ethiopian protest death toll hits 239; 3,500 arrests

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At least 239 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested in more than a week of unrest in Ethiopia that poses the biggest challenge yet to its Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister.

In the Oromia region, the toll includes 215 civilians along with nine police officers and five militia members, regional police commissioner Mustafa Kedir told the ruling party-affiliated on Wednesday.

Officials earlier said 10 people were killed in the capital, Addis Ababa, eight of them civilians, amid outrage after a popular singer was shot dead last Monday.

Hachalu Hundessa had been a rallying voice in anti-government protests that led to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking power in 2018.

Abiy swiftly introduced political reforms that also opened the way for long-held ethnic and other grievances in Africa’s second most populous country.

The military was deployed during the outrage that followed Hachalu’s death.

In remarks last week while wearing a military uniform, Abiy said dissidents he recently extended an offer of peace had “taken up arms” in revolt against the government.

He hinted there could be links between this unrest and the killing of the army chief last year as well as the grenade thrown at one of his own rallies in 2018.

The 3,500 arrests have included that of a well-known Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed, and more than 30 supporters.

It is not clear what charges they might face; the Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held the country’s top post until they helped bring Abiy to power.

Local reports have said that in some places ethnic Oromo have attacked ethnic Amhara, and in Shashamane town some people were going home to home checking identity cards and targeting Amhara residents.

Businesses have now begun opening slowly in Oromia after the violence in which several hundred homes in Ethiopia were burned or damaged.

But Ethiopia’s internet service remains cut, making it difficult for rights monitor and others to track the scores of killings.

Ethiopian police over the weekend were patrolling the country’s troubled Oromia region and the capital, Addis Ababa, following a week of unrest in which 166 people were killed and more than 2,000 arrested, after a popular singer was shot dead.

In Oromia, 145 civilians and 11 members of security forces were killed, Girma Gelam, deputy police commissioner in the region, told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate.

Another 10 people were killed in the capital, eight of them civilians.

The internet was cut last week to try to dampen the protests and made it difficult for rights monitors to track the scores of killings.

More than 2,280 people were arrested in Oromia and Addis Ababa, said police.

Arrests included that of a well-known Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed, and more than 30 supporters, it is not clear what charges they might face.

The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but had never held the country’s top political post until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018.

The arrest of opposition figures “could make a volatile situation even worse,” Human Rights Watch said.

The unrest erupted after popular singer Hachalu Hundessa was killed. He had been a prominent voice in anti-government protests that led to Abiy coming to power.

The singer was buried Thursday in a ceremony shown on national television.

“It’s a moment when people need to pause and de-escalate,” said Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa with the International Crisis Group.

He cited a series of challenges in Ethiopia including an armed insurgency in parts of the country and tension over the timing of the next election. The government recently delayed the vote, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not the first but one in a long line of grave provocations by an actor not yet identified,” Mutiga said, adding that the “wiser course of action is to strive to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue.”

The past week appears to be the most serious challenge yet to Ethiopia’s transition to multifaceted democracy, Mutiga said. “Thankfully, the situation seems to have calmed down in Addis and parts of Oromia but the scale of the violence, the degree of grievance witnessed on the streets and the danger of instability was quite high.”

Hauwa Mustapha

 

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